Ask anybody who the greatest guitar players in the history of rock music are, and you'll likely get the standard answers. The big three, Clapton, Beck and Page; certainly Eddie Van Halen; maybe Stevie Ray Vaughn. The metal-heads will cite Randy Rhodes and George Lynch. These are all valid answers, but if you would put forth names like Elliot Easton and Andy Summers, you might be likely to get a blank stare in return. Too often great guitarists are overlooked simply because they lack the flash of a star like Eddie Van Halen or because they are part of a group that simply has an overabundance of talent and they tend to be moved to the background.
Take Andy Summers, guitarist for the Police. Everybody knows who Sting is, and there is no doubt that he is tremendously talented, as is drummer Stewart Copeland. As part of that unit, however, Summers was often overlooked. What is so amazing about Andy Summers is not only his command of the instrument, but his overwhelming versatility. From ska to punk to reggae to straight ahead rock and roll, nothing is outside of his ability. His style has been described as minimalist, but that minimalism is a plus, and he is to be credited for not falling prey to his critics and trying to overplay to compensate for a lack of complex layers of sound. Below, in no particular order, I've listed some of my favorite underappreciated players, and the reasons why I consider them to be great.
Elliot Easton (The Cars): Elliot Easton is probably the greatest reason for the success of The Cars. Without Easton's accessible rock guitar cutting through the synth driven Cars sound, they never would have found the mainstream acceptance that they did. Imagine the spacey pair of Ric Ocasik and Greg Hawkes playing over an equally new-wave influenced guitarist and you have a style of music that would not appeal to people on a large scale. Easton's Buddy Hollyesque sound, however, served to make The Cars commercially viable. "My Best Friend's Girl" from their debut album is an excellent example of how Easton's contribution was essential in creating hit records for The Cars.
Warren DiMartini (Ratt): What impresses me most about DiMartini is that fact that despite being known as a speed demon who is content to throw a startling flurry of notes at the listener, is that he knows the value of a rest. Too many metal artists try to play as fast as possible, and DiMartini can keep up with the best of them, but I'm more taken with the fact that on songs like "Lay it Down", "Wanted Man" and "Round and Round", it's DiMartini's artful use of pauses and mutings to lend depth and character to what would otherwise be just another ripping metal tune.
Kathy Valentine (The Go-Go's/solo): The Go-Go's will never be known for stunning musicianship, but Kathy Valentine's reputation suffered from being thrown together with a group of girls who were far less proficient in their playing. Not to say that the Go-Go's were not any good. Their style of music was based on catchy beats and fun lyrics, so being technically perfect was not a requirement. Unfortunately, the fact that this was an easily exploitable fault that the critics could grab a hold of, the band was unfairly criticized for being "a bunch of girls who could barely play their instruments." If they had bothered to check, they would have found the Valentine was actually an experienced and talented guitarist, making the switch to bass to fill the spot with the Go-Go's. Actually, a casual listen will show that Valentine's bass playing stands out more that Charlotte Caffey's or Jane Wiedlin's guitar work. At times it's almost melodic. Since the Go-Go's Valentine has gone solo, along with a side project called the Delpines. I would strongly urge you to check out Valentine's appealing mix of rock and punk on her "Light Years" album.
Slash (Guns 'N' Roses/Velvet Revolver): Guns 'N' Roses now Velvet Revolver bassist Duff McKagan once claimed that Slash had "the fastest right hand I've ever seen." While it may be argued that the left (fretting) hand is more important for a guitarist, after hearing Slash play, there can be no discounting the value of a fast right hand. "Sweet Child of Mine", "Paradise City" and "Welcome to the Jungle" received more radio play, but to hear one of the best examples of Slash's work, check out "Mr. Brownstone" on "Appetite for Destruction".
Steve "Steamin" Clark (Def Leppard): It seems that all great artists have their demons and Steve Clark was no exception. Before alcohol claimed his life at too young an age, Steve Clark had built up a legacy of fine work that will live on. Steve's gift was an ability to build spatial separation into his phrasing. It was almost as if he was playing in a huge empty amphitheater in which each note rang out perfectly and separately and yet, along with the complimentary work of bandmate Phil Colin, fit tightly together like pieces in a puzzle. The song "Love Bites" from the "Hysteria" album perfectly illustrates this point. Unlike previous member Pete Willis, Colin provided a perfect foil for Clark to play off of. Unfortunately, Def Leppard seemed to be associated more with the fact that drummer Rick Allen played with one arm, the result of a 1984 auto accident, taking some of the attention away from the fact that Clark's playing made Def Leppard one of the finest pop metal bands of the 80's.
Howard Leese (Heart): Fated to share the stage with two of the most beautiful and talented women of the rock era, Howard Leese continued to lend his creative talents to Heart long after its other founding members had departed. It was Nancy with her beautiful blond tresses that stole the spotlight, but it was Howard's guitar that powered the group. Secure in the knowledge that he was a key component in Heart's driving guitar based sound, he was never bitter about the fact that his name was only recognizable amongst true fans of the group. Listen to "Barracuda" or "Magic Man" or "Even it Up" and you are instantly struck by the inherent "coolness" of the opening riffs, and his mastery of harmonic overtones is second to none.
Mick Mars (Motley Crüe): Mostly thought of as a fair to middling heavy metal guitarist, Mick Mars phrasing is perfect for the Crüe's sound. Chunky, dirty and staccato at times, it still manages to be melodic. Upstaged by Vince Neil, Nikki Sixx and Tommy Lee and their bad-boy images, Mick stays cool and aloof behind his powerful music. Despite the darkness inherent in some of their tunes, you cannot fail to be uplifted by Mick Mars' musical skills.
Really there are so many worthy players that I could go on and on, but this is just a listing of those few that have bugging me for years. It's true that people have their own tastes, and for some, these guys wouldn't even make the top 10, but it makes me feel better to have my sentiments known. If I'm lucky there may be a few of you out there - just a few - who will say, "Man, I've been saying for years that he (or she) has never got enough credit."